It’s hard for us to be rational about Derek Jeter. By “us” I don’t exclusively mean just Yankee fans, either. The New York media (coupled with a healthy heaping of ESPN) has gone above and beyond, making Jeter into a paragon of all things good and holy on the diamond and off, while simultaneously driving every Yankee hater to put him in the same category as Stalin (thereby making A-Rod a natural Trotsky).
Opinion on him has become as polarized as a debate on national health care. The people who defend him go over the top because the detractors are so wildly irrational. This cycle builds and builds until we can’t separate the legend from the facts. Somehow, he is “one of the greatest Yankees of all time” and the “most overrated player in the history of baseball” at the same time. In the middle of that stark dichotomy sits Jeter, the 37-year-old shortstop, a character we seemingly know nothing about.
The problem with greatness is how quickly it spoils those surrounding it. As a Yankee fan, this is just a fact of life. And as a mid-20s Yankee fan, it’s a burden we heap primarily on the shoulders of Derek Jeter. The face (and captain) of the most celebrated franchise in sport, he is the one to get us to our guaranteed promised land. We do this not only because his cool demeanor and quiet confidence can hold our collective expectations, but because we have evidence of it.
Home runs in November coupled with outstanding plays at the plate to save and swing playoff series, matched only by head-first dives into the stands to win games against rivals. Countless singles and doubles to keep games alive from April’s burgeoning spring through the late fall chills. His heroics have almost become commonplace, each bit of magic tempered with a “ho-hum” expectancy.
When the Yankees are in a pinch, Jeter will get us out of it. No matter how herculean the effort needed. And if he can’t pull out a miracle, we hold it against him. It’s unfair, but it’s a perception held almost exclusively because of his own actions. If he wasn’t so outrageously “clutch,” if he wasn’t seemingly super human, then we wouldn’t make him an exception, would we? No one expects Ramiro Pena to even get on base most of the time, let alone to be expected to bail the Yankees out over 162 games. Yes, there is A-Rod and Tex and the rest, but they’re stop-gaps. Jeter is the end-all, be-all.
And it is this crux that makes life difficult on us.
Jeter is on his decline, and if you ask most Yankee fans, they’ll turn their heads and act like they don’t know what a “decline” is. Because, well, it’s been a while since we’ve seen one up close, and with this much on the line. Bernie Williams’ sudden exit from the franchise was a bit shocking. He had a great deal of talent, and better career numbers than you probably realize, but he was never the most gregarious guy; we pinned our hopes on others and was always pleasantly surprised when Bernie came up big. Giambi flamed out and was never a “true Yankee” so we could see him go. Clemens left as a hero, returned as a goat, and retired a non-entity. Matsui and Damon were always well-loved rentals. The goofy-faced, hand-pissing Posada will get a nice round of applause before we toss him out the door in mid-June this year. Lots of players, but no real equals over the last decade or so.
That leaves us with Don Mattingly’s retirement in 1995 as the last one that really mattered. Donnie Baseball was similar to Jeter, but he was always given a caveat. His teams were always…mediocre. We expected Jeter to get us to the World Series; we hoped the rest of the Yankees wouldn’t fuck up Donnie’s chance to make the playoffs. He was the unlucky man out of time, wasting his talents during one of the seldom-had dry spots for a franchise that compiled championships with the zeal Al the Toy Collector had with “Woody’s Round-Up” dolls.
When Mattingly was on his last legs, we tried to will him to stay–if only a year longer–just because he deserved a championship. There he was in 1995: a veteran on a burgeoning contender. But then Griffey had to slide in to home plate and kill their chances, and with it, Mattingly’s chance to get a ring. In true form, a year later, Tino Martinez celebrates on first base as the Yankees win. Donnie got screwed out of a title by time and circumstance. His story is an unfair one.
With Jeter goes our franchise. He’s the only marquee constant of the last decade-and-a-half. When we think “Yankees,” we think “Jeter” in a way that we definitely don’t equate with “Rivera,” even though his career is absolutely unprecedented. Jeter gave the interviews, he went on SNL, he was on Page Six with any number of hotties. He is the star New Yorkers have always coveted: a mix Namath’s celebrity, Gehrig’s class, and Mantle’s desire to win, all with Clyde’s smile. He’s become synonymous with New York, with winning, with the Yankees, and most importantly, with the Yankees winning.
To see him now, as he is at the top of the post, is to see an old man. It doesn’t even look like him. His face has rounded, gotten a big doughy. The leaping throws are a thing of the past; he can barely move laterally with any ease (let’s not bring up the ridiculous “lifetime achievement” Gold Glove he just acquired). Jeter’s numbers at the plate took a terrible swan dive this past season, which is one removed from one of his best of all time, and two years removed from his second-worst campaign.
This foreign figure carries all the weight of a Jeter in his prime but these shoulders now droop from a career of carrying that expectation. Now it’s more of a guarantee that he hits into an inning-ending double play than a single into the gap.
Linked in to all of this is the things almost all humans loathe: change. The Yankees have been consistent in the last fifteen years: they’ll outspend you, they’ll load up, and they’ll beat you, be it by a drumming or ridiculous circumstnaces, and more than likely you’ll hate them for it. This team, impervious to all things, somehow doesn’t play “fair” and even with all the stars they line up, they still have Jeter to miracle his ass to another title. They’re always on top, and they’re always on top the same way.
This is no longer the same Yankee team or organization. Money no longer grows on trees. The Yankees are the team of Wall Street, and it’s not like those guys are any great shakes nowadays. The world lost half its wealth over the last few years. No one is impervious to cutting back, even the Yankees. Now, they’re a more fiscally responsible team, using a good mix of homegrown talent (Joba, Hughes, Cano, Gardner, soon-to-be Montero) with hired guns (A-Rod, Tex, CC, ……Burnett?) to augment them and build a contender. [Ed. note: yes, this is how they won the 1996 title, but definitely not the manner that they ran things through most of the 2000s. Go with me, here.]
The days of scouring the free agent market and automatically buying the best three players available are over. The days of lavishing giant, ridiculous contracts at the feet of aging stars simply because they can are through. The Yankees were always going to overpay for Jeter because his value as a baseball player (and as a celebrity) get a 50% mark-up in NY. The only competition the Yankees were up against was The Legend of Jeter, the one they profited from in the past, the one they helped create through marketing.
All the uproar over his value was really tied in to our collective sense of loss on the horizon. Without Jeter, we surmise, there will be no winning. God help me for making this comparison, but much like with Favre Green Bay, when it was time for the franchise to move on without him, the fans rebuked the idea. To them, Favre is the franchise. To Yankee fans, Jeter is the franchise. When we’re overpaying for him, we’re really overpaying for the opportunity to win titles over the duration of his contract. To win without him would be an impossibility.
It seems like the Yanks will still have enough in the coffers to sign Rivera, Jeter, and still manage to have enough to land Cliff Lee. But if we don’t, and we traded a lights-out pitcher for a 38-year-old shortstop who is starting to lose bat speed and has lost almost all of his motion, then we’re going to be in an even more foreign position but an equally unfair one: making Jeter the goat for making costing us championships.